PORTLAND, Ore. – Kevin Dahlgren chased the suspected thief for about a mile after witnessing a smash and grab from an SUV in broad daylight, his camera rolling. But when he called 911, Dahlgren said the operator told him police would not pursue the suspect because Dahlgren was not the victim.
“‘Of course I’m not the victim, but I was literally standing there,'” Dahlgren, an addiction counselor who chronicles Portland’s homeless crisis on Twitter, recalled telling the dispatcher last summer. “‘Why do you think the criminals are out there doing this? Because they know even if a person calls the police, the police aren’t going to show.'”
Crime increased in Portland for the third year in a row in 2022, according to police data, and district attorneys in neighboring counties say lack of prosecution is part of the problem — one that could spill into the rest of the state.
“That difference in prosecutions does result in some public safety challenges because crime doesn’t just limit itself to one particular county based on geography,” said Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton, who oversees the second-largest county in the Portland area. “Criminals move from county to county. So if your neighbor’s not taking care of business, it will impact your home.”
Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt prosecuted half of all misdemeanor theft cases referred to his office last year, according to data provided by a spokesperson. At the same time, Portland business owners complained of repeated attacks by thieves and vandals. Property crime reports increased 11% compared to 2021, according to Portland Police Bureau data.
Portland’s neighboring Washington and Clackamas counties filed charges in 91% and 84% of misdemeanor theft cases, respectively, according to their district attorneys. In Washington County, Barton said about 90% of those charges result in convictions.
Alleged criminals are aware of the discrepancy.
“If it was in Multnomah County, like, you would have got released already,” a caller was recorded telling an inmate in Washington County late last year.
The inmate responded, “I know, I know. It’s because it’s Washington County.”
Kristin Olson, a trial attorney and native Portlander, said criminals feel like “it’s a free-for-all” in her city.
“We can’t just not prosecute misdemeanor crimes because that creates societal decay, and it creates an overall sense of lawlessness,” Olson said. “If we’re letting these people go left and right because we don’t believe in bail and we don’t believe in incarcerating them, then they know they can commit these crimes with impunity. And we don’t feel safe.”
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Schmidt, whose campaign received contributions from groups linked to liberal billionaire George Soros, took office during the height of Portland’s 2020 protests. He soon announced a policy presumptively declining to prosecute the most common riot-related charges.
The office filed charges in just 47% of all cases it received in 2020. That rate has been steadily increasing since then, hitting 60% in 2022. But at the same time, police have sent 43.5% fewer cases to Schmidt than they did in 2019, according to data from the district attorney’s office.
“Their hands are tied because of politics,” Dahlgren said of local police. “If a cop knows it’s not going to be prosecuted, why are they going to waste their time on two hours of paperwork and drive him down just to get released an hour later?”
Schmidt declined an interview request from Fox News.
Barton said the justice system needs to “have a balance where we let the police do their job and we incentivize them to arrest people by prosecuting the people they arrest.”
In 2021, Washington County filed more criminal cases than Multnomah County, according to Oregon Judicial Department data. Clackamas County, which has roughly half the population, filed more misdemeanor charges than Multnomah County.
Prosecution is “critical” to deterring future crime and increasing livability, Clackamas County District attorney John Wentworth told Fox News.
“If there isn’t some accountability, if there isn’t some action that’s taken to actually deal with the trauma that’s occurred, nothing gets better,” Wentworth said.
Barton doesn’t embrace a tough-on-crime label, though, instead saying he likes to have an array of public safety tools available.
“We want to use the hammer when it’s the right tool to use, but we have other tools as well,” he said. “Things like our drug court or our veterans treatment court or mental health court, where we can use a different tool other than a hammer to try and accomplish that same result of holding people accountable, promoting rehabilitation and keeping the victims and public safe.”